The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

A haunting meditation on the trauma and grief of a Canadian community

The Very Best



Alberta Watson, Arsinée Khanjian, Brooke Johnson
112 min


Somehow makes the story of The Pied Piper even eerier.

What it's about

When a school bus crashes and kills nearly all of a small Canadian town’s children, a lawyer (Ian Holm) struggles to unite the grieving families in a class action lawsuit amidst growing rifts in the community.

The take

The Sweet Hereafter is the kind of movie that feels very different from the one you might imagine when reading the plot synopsis. The tragic accident at its center doesn’t form a dramatic crescendo as you might be primed to expect — and, despite revolving around a lawsuit, this is no courtroom drama. Instead, the ironically titled The Sweet Hereafter deals with the messy, difficult emotions that come with grief, survival, and blame in the aftermath of a bus crash, with the film largely taking place in a snowy Canadian town rent apart by the loss of nearly all its children in the accident. Ian Holm plays the out-of-town lawyer battling to unite the bereft parents behind a class action lawsuit, all while struggling to deal with the quasi-loss of his own drug-dependent daughter. Non-linear chronology means the before-the-crash and the after intermingle, scene after scene; it’s an unorthodox remix of the way we’re used to seeing this kind of story unfold, but it allows the movie to home in on the complexity of the community’s pain. Unsparing performances, haunting music, and meditative cinematography plunge us into it all, recreating the terrible iciness of grief in a way that is difficult to shake off.

What stands out

The performances of Holm and Sarah Polley (the latter as the now-paralyzed sole survivor of the crash). Operating amidst a strong cast doing great work with difficult roles, these two had their work cut out for them with particularly challenging parts: Holm as a man confronting tragedy on two frontiers, and Polley as an already-traumatized teenager who significantly shapes the movie. It’s easy to point to standout scenes — Holm’s monologue on the plane, Polley’s calculated revelation late on in the movie — but both do stellar understated work throughout.


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